From Psychedelic Pharma To Crop Gene Editing – The UK’s Big Opportunity

There is a buzz in drug discovery at the moment over the potential uses of psychedelics – especially psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in ‘magic mushrooms’ – to treat some mental illnesses.

This isn’t actually all that novel. Scientists were doing this about sixty years ago. But as magic mushrooms became a mainstay of 1960s hippy counterculture, experiments fell out of favour.

While still illegal for recreational use in the UK attitudes are relaxing and, in the US, States like Oregon have legalised supervised use of psilocybin to help treat conditions such as anxiety and PTSD.

The UK’s regulatory environment is one of the most permissive in the world so while there hasn’t been the same liberalisation in drug prohibition as in some US States, opportunities for pharma to experiment with psychedelic treatments abound.

With the trends from the US catching on, UK-based drug discovery companies are taking advantage of the supportive legislative framework.

In truth, psychedelics are just one of several areas of ‘controversial’ science where the UK’s pharma has license to explore.

Beyond leading global academic institutions, an enviable talent pool and thriving innovation clusters, what fuels the UK’s status as a global scientific superpower is its regulatory regime.

This came into sharp focus with the rapid approval of COVID vaccines in 2020 and is recurring once again as the Government’s post-Brexit legislative agenda begins to take shape.

The Genetic Technology Bill was presented to parliament [this/last] week. It will remove the barriers to gene editing that govern EU countries and so open the door for things like crop gene editing in the UK.

The UK’s scientific community was largely opposed to Brexit – and increasingly alarmed at our participation in Horizon Europe being used as a bargaining chip over the Northern Ireland protocol – but this is one so-called ‘Brexit Dividend’ that has been widely applauded.

Promises were also made to further streamline the approval process for new treatments too, further boosting the UK’s potential as a hotbed for vaccine development.

As these new opportunities materialise, new avenues for investment open. A considerable weight of capital is still chasing ideas and businesses to back. More will follow if the government is successful in reforming the rules surrounding pension fund investments.

Ready funding, a skilled workforce, growing innovation districts and a pro-science regulatory framework is a formidable formula.

This might not undo all the trials and tribulations created by Brexit, especially with the fate of our involvement in Horizon still up in the air. But it’s a start.

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